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sex education in Ontario from 1900-1950

by Christabelle Sethna | March 21, 2000

Whereas sex education was touted during the World War Two as vital to victory, in the atmosphere of the Cold War quest for national security, it came to be portrayed as a curricular frill incompatible with pedagogical and sexual conservatism. The chill cast on delivering school-based sex instruction to students would be borne by secondary school girls in particular.

The wartime enthusiasm of many Ontario educators for school-based sex instruction occurred in concert with the joint rise in venereal disease and juvenile delinquency. Over the course of the war, the female juvenile delinquent came to be seen as synonymous with the amateur prostitute who infected soldiers and civilians, thereby compromising allied war aims at home and abroad. As rates of venereal infection skyrocketed in the military and civilian populations at the same time that mothers employed in war industries were repeatedly blamed for their daughters' sexual licentiousness, a tremendous groundswell of support arose for school-based sex instruction.

Some school boards in the province either introduced or flirted with the possibility of introducing some form of social hygiene education to students in high schools. But, it was not until 1944, when the panic regarding the spread of venereal disease in teens of both sexes led the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation to endorse unanimously compulsory venereal disease testing for all high school students, that the provincial Department of Education took action (“Teachers Urge All Students be VD Tested”). In an attempt to quell the hysteria, the Department of Education, in league with the Ontario Department of Health, revised its curriculum guidelines in 1944 to include the study of venereal disease. The Department of Education slated the topic for grades 10 and 12 to give students who did not continue their education after Grade 10 the opportunity to acquire some knowledge of the contagion (Ontario Department of Education 1944). No doubt because knowledge of the contagion could also provide students with information about premarital sexual intercourse, the Department of Education ringed the subject with careful stipulations. Venereal disease was to be studied alongside other communicable diseases. Individual public schools could choose whether or not to include the subject in the curriculum. Parental permission was required. And girls and boys were to be instructed separately (Brown).

Toward the end of the war, the discovery of penicillin’s effectiveness against syphilis and gonorrhea engendered even more consternation over the possibility that a medical cure would give way to a jump in juvenile delinquency and, therefore, to greater increases in venereal disease in teens. But due in part to the military campaign to distribute condoms and prophylactic kits to men in the armed forces, the end of the war did not bring about the predicted rise in venereal infection. Rates of syphilis and gonorrhea in Ontario actually fell after 1945. Yet demands for the introduction of some form of sex instruction into secondary and elementary schools increased (Lichstein).

As the menace of venereal disease ebbed, only to be replaced by the threat of sex delinquency – broadly defined as any form of criminal and noncriminal nonmarital sexual activity – Ontario educators began to clamour for the introduction of family life education into schools. Family life education had originally been popularized in the late 1920s as a possible vehicle for sex education in schools. Unlike social hygienists, who had traditionally concentrated their energies on fighting prostitution and venereal disease, family life education theorists focused their attention on channeling children’s sexual energies toward eventual marriage and parenthood. Because its goal was to produce stable nuclear families modeled after white, middle-class Anglo-Saxon heterosexual norms, family life education was initially considered a boon to national security (Gleason). For, as the dread of Soviet expansionism abroad was accompanied by the threat of Communist subversion at home, the containment of sexual energies within stable nuclear families was perceived as the key to the containment of Communist ideologies (May).

Trustees at the Toronto Board of Education had toyed with the prospect of introducing social hygiene teaching into schools during the war. But now galvanized by the prospect of sex delinquency, the Board struck a Teachers’ Committee to develop a curriculum on family life education for grades 7 and 8. The Committee sought to combat sex delinquency by nurturing sexually chaste, heterosexual relationships amongst boys and girls. Such relationships had far-reaching implications. In the contemporaneous psychological discourse, they were considered crucial to weaning boys and girls from the adolescent stage of homosexual attraction. So central was this weaning process to “normal” psychological maturity, as expressed in sexual chastity, marriage and child-rearing, that girls and boys who engaged in sexual relations prior to marriage were stigmatized as psychologically abnormal (Adams, M.). Homosexuality was further constructed as a political and criminal danger to the state. Gays and lesbians in the Canadian civil service were targeted as national security risks because they were considered easy targets of Communist blackmailers. And male homosexuals, under a new legal and psychiatric rubric designed to identify criminal sexual psychopaths, were designated as violent child molesters and murderers (Kinsman; D'Emilio).

The Teachers’ Committee held that sex delinquency could be nipped in the bud if students in coeducational classes were given accurate facts on sexual physiology provided in films, charts and question-and-answer sessions, in addition to sound moral values about sex. Thus, the Teachers’ Committee produced a Family Life Education curriculum with couched information on menstruation, seminal emissions, sexual intercourse, conception, gestation and childbirth within a framework promoting the importance of opposite sex attraction, sexual chastity, marriage and parenthood. Parental opposition was feared. But teachers objected to the curriculum because they believed it was long on sexual physiology and short on sexual morality. They argued that the imbalance would give students the smarts to avoid the consequences, such as an unwanted pregnancy, of sex delinquency. Family life education was now seen as contributing to the very national insecurity it was meant to eliminate. Due to the protests of a number of teachers and trustees, nearly all of the physiological information in the curriculum was excised in 1949 and even the modified curriculum was quickly shelved (Sethna 1995; Adams, M.).

works cited
  • The Trouble With Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality, by M.L. ADAMS, University of Toronto Press | 1997
  • Education in the Prevention of Venereal Disease, by W. GORDON BROWN, Ontario Educational Association Yearbook, pgs 119–122 | 1945
  • The Homosexual Menace: The Politics of Sexuality in Cold War America, by JOHN D’EMILIO, in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons eds., with Robert A. Padug, Temple University Press, Philadelphia | 1989
  • Psychology and the Construction of the “Normal” Family in Postwar Canada, 1945–60, by MONA GLEASON, Canadian Historical Review, 78, 3, pgs 442–477 | 1997
  • The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada, by GARY KINSMAN, Black Rose Books, Montreal | 1987
  • Family-Life Education As One Measure for VD Control, by JOSEPH LICHSTEIN, paper presented at the Third Western Canada Venereal Disease Conference, Regina, Saskatchewan | November 21-22, 1944
    National Archives of Canada File 8(3g) “Family Living” MG 28, 11 volume 42
  • Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, by ELAINE TYLER MAY, Basic Books, New York | 1988
  • Ontario Department of Education, Courses of Study for Grades IX-XIII, Physical Education | 1950
  • The Facts of Life: The Sex Instruction of Ontario Public School Children, 1900–1950, by CHRISTABELLE SETHNA, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Toronto | 1995
  • Teachers Urge All Students Be VD Tested, Globe and Mail | December 19, 1944

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen. It has been reprinted with permission, and is an excerpt of the article:

The Cold War and the Sexual Chill: Freezing Girls Out of Sex Education,
by CHRISTABELLE SETHNA, Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Women and Education issue, volume 17, number 4, pgs 57–61 | winter 1998

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